The Sciences

Copernicus: Still Dead

Cosmic VarianceBy Julianne DalcantonNov 21, 2008 10:26 PM

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It seems that archeologists have definitively identified the remains of Copernicus, using a combination of forensic reconstruction and DNA matching. Historians were pretty sure that he was buried in a particular church, but weren't quite sure where within it the grave actually was. They found a likely set of bones a few years back, and a reconstruction of the face from the skull sure looked an awful lot like Copernicus. (It also happened to look an awful lot like James Cromwell, the actor who played Farmer Hoggett in Babe, but he's still alive).

While exercises like this are of historical interest, to me they've always raised the question as to when a set of remains becomes fair game for mucking about. If you were to dig up poor great aunt Edna, extract her skull, and sent it off to a lab in Sweden, you might be looked upon as being disrespectful or worse. But, digging about to find the remains of Copernicus is apparently completely OK, and was actually ordered by the local Catholic bishop. So when does this happen? Is there something like the copyright system where the right to be outraged by disturbance of a grave expires after a certain number of years? Is it more like radioactivity of the soul, where the connection to something sacred fades with an e-folding time? It's certainly a culturally loaded question as well. Locally, a set of 9000 year old remains found in the Pacific Northwest were the subject of dispute. Local tribes claimed Kennewick Man as one of their ancestors, and requested that the remains be given back to the Umatilla tribe for reburial. Scientists, on the other hand, wanted to continue to study the remains, and argued that testing showed that the skeleton was unlikely to have actually been a member of one of the tribes. There are on-going law suits to repatriate native american skeletons to their tribes. So obviously different cultures have different standards for when it's acceptable to study their dead, and Copernicus lost out.

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